Charlie Strong faces quarterback question, critical third season at Texas

Tyler Horka

Head coach Charlie Strong inherited a broken program in 2014.

He took to the helm in Austin following the departure of an embattled, but beloved, head coach in Mack Brown. 

Brown left a lasting legacy in his 16 seasons at Texas, reeling in the program’s fourth national title. Yet his tenure ended in grueling fashion. He failed to get the team’s offense off the ground and finished with less than nine wins in two of his last three seasons. Burnt orange faithful called for an end to Brown’s reign before he stepped down at the end of an eight-win season in 2013.

Longhorn nation has echoed similar cries about Strong just two years into his stint at Texas — the third-year coach has an 11–14 record. But he isn’t worried about the pressure to perform in year three. 

“You have to make sure you stay positive as a coach,” Strong said at Big 12 media days on July 19. “You can ask the players now — I don’t talk about [my job security], nobody even discusses it. We just go about our business every day knowing we have to turn this program around.”

Having a confident quarterback behind center can make or break Strong’s tenure at Texas, whether he feels the pressure or not. 

The Longhorns used a tandem of redshirt sophomore Jerrod Heard and senior Tyrone Swoopes at quarterback in 2015. Heard struggled after showing promise early, failing to throw for 100 yards or more in six of his final nine games. He recently shifted to wide receiver, limiting the quarterback competition to two: Swoopes and freshman Shane Buechele. 

“It’s all about who’s going to take over the offense and get everybody around them to just play within what [offensive coordinator] Sterlin [Gilbert] is trying to get accomplished,” Strong said.

The Longhorns are also banking on Gilbert, who enters his first season as Texas’ offensive coordinator. He was the architect of the third-fastest offense in the nation at Tulsa last season. He hopes to install the same up-tempo style in Austin to resurge a unit that averaged just 26 points last season — third worst in the conference.

Gilbert hopes the unit’s tempo leads to points. But he still understands he needs to scheme to his players’ strengths.  

“If we have success on the back end with the [running] backs and quarterbacks throwing up the field, then it all starts up front,” Gilbert said. “As they go, we go.”

Gilbert is confident that he can gear his offense around either quarterback. Senior safety Dylan Haines said both signal callers have had ups and downs, but he’s witnessed Buechele improve throughout training camp. 

“He’s [always] been a smart player,” Haines said. “Now he’s putting touch on the ball, putting it in the right space. When receivers are covered well, he’s able to put it in the spot where only the receiver can get it.” 

Haines has seen the quarterbacks progress from the opposite side of the ball. But he’d also like to see his own unit improve before taking on Notre Dame on Sept. 4, especially on third downs. Texas ranked No. 104 in third-down defense last season. 

“You look at us last year, we were very poor [on defense],” Strong said. “We have to make teams one-dimensional and get off the field on third down.”

The Strong era at Texas hinges on two factors: He must find an effective quarterback and must force the opposition off the field on critical downs. 

Strong finally has the talent on hand to build a team reminiscent of Texas’ dominant teams of the past. But if he doesn’t deliver in 2016, his legacy will more closely resemble Brown’s final years in Austin.